What were some of the things he said to me over the years? Don’t make the mistake I did, only use your writing for fiction. What did he say to others who might call him a mentor? Claire Messud, Amor Towles, Michael Ravitch, Sharon Guskin: each has some Matthiessen in their literary code. Once I sighted him in a courtyard at school writing in a tiny book. I write every day, then I transcribe the notes. Later that same week he called me into his office and said the words that helped me through every waitress job I would later be fired from or any other soul-killing moment in an office: he told me I would represent the school in some national contest, and also, did I have any writing to send his editor? If I misinterpreted his words to mean I should type in beatnik frenzy on onionskin paper for two weeks and mail this tangle to his editor, does any of that matter now? Among what endures is how he gave so generously the gift of belief. When I can, I try to replicate his act with others, with students or friends. On our last visit to him, I admit I grew teary. You really gave so much, I told him, you believed in me, it meant everything, I’m hoping your gift continues. He told me that despite all outward appearances that this gift of belief in others and himself also mattered to him, and that he had known his own internal struggles, some of which he named. That twinkle may have turned a little teary, but he had no regrets.
‘I’ve lived a good life,’ he said, ‘loved what I’ve done, have been very fortunate. I hope to keep on living but I won’t suffer if I don’t.’ Whatever he said next doesn’t need full recall. Like Henry James and his injunction to be someone upon whom nothing was lost, Matthiessen’s presence alone invited you into the party. The party asked you to pay attention. You didn’t have to go globe-trotting to pay attention. You could just see the joke in the moment, behind everything, the joke with its specific nuance and lineaments. (The joke being that nothing mattered, the zen-master, while everything mattered, the activist environmentalist.) Pay attention! Does such attention come from years of beating people’s spines or from sitting still on a cushion, as he did practicing zen? Or from crouching down like a young Peter O’Toole among murderous tribesmen in Papua New Guinea? His legacy remains less about the notations one can make within extreme geographies. What mattered most was stilled attention. As if stillness alone could stand as a brave act, enough to create bright ether and ground, a chance to see the joke behind all fronts. Would you not — could you not — call this gift life itself?
–Edie Meidav is an American novelist whose books include Lola, California, The Far Field: A Novel of Ceylon and Crawl Space. She has been awarded the Kafka Award, a Lannan Fellowship and the Bard Fiction Prize. She teaches in the MFA program at University of Massachusetts Amherst.